From Botswana to Ireland to Cannes – one young director’s incredible journey
William Armstrong’s cinematic test ad for Jaguar impressed the judges at this year’s Young Director Award – and it’s easy to see why, with its sweeping landscape, atmospheric cinematography and melancholic narrative. But the rolling Irish hills in the spot belie Armstrong’s childhood exploring the scorpion-filled Botswana outback. We caught up with the up-and-coming filmmaker with many tales to tell. http://bit.ly/LEcI2b
LBB> When did you first pick up a film camera and think 'this is what I want to do?'
WA> It wasn't a camera - it was an ad! I was 16 and saw an Adidas ad for All Blacks rugby by NZ director Greg Nicholas. I think it had already been around a while, but it sent shivers down my spine that refused to go away. It was gritty and thrilling and intense and I thought, ‘holy shit I want to make something like that’. I didn't know what directing was or how to get there and I spent a few years studying other things before I found my way to film school. It's been a winding path to finally directing something of my own.
LBB> How would you characterise your work?
WA> When I find an ad that moves me or inspires me to get up and focus harder on what I'm doing, I'm always shocked that I've felt like that in such a short space of time. Ads like that are like a sharp jab of adrenaline or a moment of clarity about life and what to do with it. Nothing would make me happier than being able to affect other people that way. If I describe that in a traditional sense, it’s emotive visual storytelling.
LBB> Where are you from and what was your childhood like? Do you think your experiences inform your film making?
WA> My family home is in Gaborone, Botswana. I was raised there until my folks decided I'd get a better education outside of Bots (which was pretty basic at the time), so I went to boarding school in South Africa from age 10. It was a very outdoor childhood, we didn't have shopping malls - the bush was right on our doorstep instead. So scorpions and snakes and all those wonderful things formed part of weekend adventures, and an avid imagination developed early on. We all knew the local myths and legends and our nursery rhymes were about 'how the elephant got its trunk', pretty different to kids in Europe I think! A love and fascination of nature grew from that. At home you can walk from one horizon to the other without seeing any sign of man - if I can capture that potential of 'what's out there' it would encourage people to be inspired more often, and that's what I want to do in my work.
LBB> You're from Botswana and now live in Ireland - that's some journey! What attracted you to Ireland?
WA> I didn't know much about it but my great-grandfather was from Ireland. A brilliant young producer Andrew Freedman had been making waves with a number of short films and was on the cusp of a first feature. He offered me the chance to start a commercials arm of the company with him. I was fresh out of film school, high on confidence and naive enough to think we could do it. So I started out (desperately hiding my inexperience) as producer and after signing several really talented directors things started happening. I was in a position to learn from other directors and basically fast track my exposure to agencies, boards, treatments, clients and have the time to formulate my own entry to directing while I was at it.
LBB> Aside from film making, are you involved in any other creative activities?
WA> I'm pretty obsessed with ads, so that takes up most of my time. I take a lot of photographs. I collect other people's photos from blogs and imagine how I'd turn them into scenes of an ad. Probably sounds a bit parasitic! But it's a type of curation that's helped massively in forming my own ideas.
LBB> What inspires you?
WA> Most days I'm easily inspired, so if it's one of those moods, pretty much anything.
LBB> How did the Jaguar test ad come about? What inspired it?
WA> I had been writing concepts for almost a year, and waiting for something strong enough to get attention but also cheap enough to do for free. I was literally on the plane back home in December when I started putting together a few images on InDesign and this narrative began to form. It was about exploring wild places and seeing beautiful things and arriving at the conclusion that you'd led a life well lived. It occurred to me that whatever car you drove was partly responsible for allowing you to do that, so I wrote it as a lesson - once one man finds what he's looking for, he hands over the car so that the next man can begin the search for himself. Suddenly it was a car ad and the only thing I needed was a set of keys.
LBB> You won silver at this year's YDA - what was that experience like? Did you go out for the ceremony? And has the award changed things for you since?
WA> Life changing. It gave me a lot of validation and only once you make it to the other side do you realise how much easier it would have been if you had that self-confidence from the start. That goes for every decision, even in prep for the project when the YDA shortlist wasn't even in the picture. I was in Cannes for the full week and yes, you meet hundreds of people and party bloody hard, but more than those things I was blown away by the experience. My ideas about the future were at a certain scale, and that bar was raised significantly. I think every director has some pretty lofty dreams, it’s part of the job requirement, but those dreams are only as big as your horizon. Places like Cannes show a much bigger picture and your ambitions shift accordingly and immediately.
The YDA itself has got me exposure that doesn't exist anywhere else. Few awards out there judge projects against others who faced similar challenges - for example a test commercial like mine can't really compete against a fully funded and agency scripted broadcast commercial in an award competition, it's a knife in a gun fight. Most awards shows that have sections for craft don't recognise this difference, so the YDA is doing an incredible job in giving emerging directors credibility early in their careers. Since the award (almost four weeks ago to this day) I've been contacted by production companies from the UK, Canada and Germany. I need to make some decisions but there have been some exciting discussions about representation in those territories. I'm still trying to process just how much has happened in the space of a month, but it's been fucking awesome.